Every year since 1990, the Team USA Scholarship program sends at least one but usually two drivers to race in the world-famous Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in the UK.According to their website
The principal aim of the Team USA Scholarship is to provide opportunities for young American race car drivers at an early stage in their careers. This includes funded drives and introductions to influential figures within the sport who will provide valuable insight and contacts to assist their progress up the racing “ladder.”
In this day of competing junior formula series vying for the attention (and budget) of young drivers, I contacted Team USA Scholarship founder and President Jeremy Shaw to find out the kind of things the program is looking for when selecting their drivers.
What I found interested in talking to Jeremy (who has certainly seen his fair share of young drivers!) is that a lot of what he says applies beyond the program and should be taken to heart by all drivers, young and old. We talked about the scholarship program itself and what kind of character traits the selection team is looking at. We also talked about why Formula Ford is such a good training ground for young drivers, a topic we will also be exploring in an upcoming interview on the blog with Brian Graham of Brian Graham Racing who coincidentally runs the Team Canada Scholarship, a program inspired by the Team USA program. Finally, we touched on the all-important aspect of networking and how that factors into the equation.
What is the Team USA Scholarship Program looking for when selecting its drivers?
When looking at drivers, it is important that they are the “complete package” meaning that they have all the necessary skills both on and off the track. Being talented on the track is only approximately 30% of the equation. While you need to obviously be skillful on the track, it is important that you are somebody that is continually networking, continually learning and looking to properly represent the program sponsors, the scholarship itself as well as your country. Drivers that have been a part of the program want to make motorsport a career and they are willing to put in the work to make it happen, motivation that Shaw recognizes not all young drivers have.
In addition to the tangible driving skills and intangible off-track skills, the Scholarship is looking at young drivers who have driven at least 1-2 years in cars, regardless of whether it was in open or closed-wheel categories. Car experience is important which means they do not select karters, primarily because the level of driving is so high at the Festival that the driver would be at an immediate disadvantage with only a karting background.
The Importance of Networking
One of the main points that Shaw stressed to me was the importance of networking, not just as being a part of the scholarship at Brands Hatch but for being a driver in general since so much of racing takes place off the track in boardrooms and showrooms. “The key to being successful boils down to money and experience. Having as much as possible of each will always help you to move up the motorsport ladder. “
You need to be prepared to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves” Shaw explained. And in order to get those opportunities you need to make connections, especially at an event like the Festival and introduce yourself to people. “The more people you meet, the more chance someone will hire you. Get out of your comfort zone, do your homework and if you don’t have the money, find people who do and introduce yourself, get a dialog going.”
This does not just apply to the Festival but to racing as a whole. For Shaw, networking is not just important, it is vital. “Even if you are not on the grid, go to races and network with those who are racing.” Regardless of whether they are teams themselves, other drivers, series officials or the motorsport professionals that attend all races in a support capacity, get your name out there to as many people as possible. Shaw falls back on one of his favourite quotes, “As Roger Penske has always stressed, effort equals results so you need to do the work to make things happen.”
The Importance of Being Realistic
Another important aspect that Shaw points out is the importance of being realistic. “Too many people are unrealistic, you have to work your way up the ladder the same way as anything in life and a lot of people don’t grasp that. It is important to have a realistic goal as well as to be honest with yourself” Shaw explains and for that “you need to be open minded. Series other than F1 are not second best” he explains. If your goal is to be a professional race driver you need to be open to all possibilities which is again why networking is so important. Do not discount any series. Meet people involved in all professional racing series and understand what they do, how things work and be open to any and all opportunities that may present themselves.
The Continuing Relevancy of the Formula Ford Festival
While the Festival is not as competitive as it was in the 70s and 80s, Shaw still believes that it presents the young driver with a singular opportunity not available elsewhere. “The Festival teaches you the basic skills you need in your arsenal and it is still super-competitive.” When I ask him about the relevancy of F1600 in this era of Formula 4 he is very clear that it still offers valuable training for a young driver. “It is extremely good for driver development as the skills needed to drive an F1600 car, with its manual shift definitely help a driver understand and cope with having to do multiple things in the cockpit while on the track. It is a cost-effective series to participate in and a perfect introduction to cars for those coming out of karts. It teaches all the necessary skills that improve a driver’s technical abilities.”
I asked him what it was like for an American driver racing in England for the first time and he admitted that there is a bit of a culture shock because racing in the UK is more mainstream than in North America, more ingrained in the European sporting culture. Because of this there are a lot more drivers and for that reason the competitive level is extremely high. But because it is so competitive it is an important test for any driver who is serious about making motorsport a career. If you want to be the best, you need to race against the best.
The 2019 edition of the Formula Ford Festival takes place October 26 -27 and will be streamed on the internet. Further information can be found here.
The Motorsport Prospects listing for the Team USA Scholarship program can be found here.
A big thank you to Jeremy Shaw for taking the time to speak with me for this article.